Over on The Hairpin, Blair Koenig (whose name you might recognize from our Space Relations column) has an essay about her three week whirlwind courtship with shoplifting. Blair is certainly not alone – many other women have taken to the comments section of her post to talk about their own shoplifting phases and, in many cases, how they still feel guilty about it.
I too was a teenage shoplifter, but my relationship with stealing lasted a lot longer than three weeks. As a freshman in high school, too young for most social activities, my two best girlfriends – we’ll call them Katie and Emma – and I spent almost every weekend at our local mall. Katie and Emma’s parents always gave them money to go shopping, and I was jealous of how both of them ended every Saturday with a whole stack of new tank tops, jeans, and dangly earrings while I was lucky to score a new T-shirt with what was left of my babysitting money. In a way, I started stealing because I wanted to balance things out – what made me different from Emma and Katie, otherwise? We had similar families and took the same classes in school, and I felt like the only thing holding me back was my smaller wardrobe. When you’re fourteen, it seems like every problem in life can be solved with a new sweater or a new tube of lip gloss. And I fancied myself a sort of teenage Robin Hood, stealing from the rich (stores) to give to the poor (me).
And I was good at it. I was small and unassuming, hanging out with two friends who always bought stuff while I waited outside the dressing room looking forlorn. I knew which stores had cameras in the dressing rooms and which ones didn’t have security tags on their clothes. I limited myself to one item per store, dancing on an invented line of morality: either the earrings or the skirt is fine, I told myself, but not both. Most of the stuff I stole was worn immediately and often, and when I slipped onto the dress I’d balled up and fit into my knapsack under a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that rush came all over again, exhilarating and triumphant. Shoplifting was my way of balancing it out, of making up for the perceived deficiencies in my life. At my school, rich kids were popular and poor kids weren’t, with the occasional token exception. The rich kids had cars and the poor kids took the bus; the rich kids were crowned Homecoming Queen while wearing the finest that Jessica McClintock had to offer and the poor kids sat outside smoking in the parking lot. Stealing the clothes I couldn’t afford was my way of trying to make up the inequity. If I could steal clothes, I could probably work my way up to stealing happiness.
I never got caught. I can’t tell you why I stopped shoplifting. At some point I realized that new clothes couldn’t make a new girl, and after a close call with a mall security guard I decided that I’d rather have fewer clothes than get grounded for life and not be able to wear said clothes in public. So my shoplifting record is still flawless. Like Oprah, I went out at the top of my game.
There’s one dress I still have from my shoplifting days. Most of the clothes I outgrew or got tired of and tossed into the Goodwill pile. The dress is a black minidress with spaghetti straps. It’s completely unlike the clothes I wore then and from the ones I wear now. I believe I’ve worn it three times total. When I stole it, I had an idea in my head of the sort of woman I was going to grow up to be, somebody who was no longer self-conscious about money and status but somebody who was sexy and confident. Even though I have enough money to pay for my own clothes now, there’s still a part of me that goes into stores and looks around for cameras or checks to see if the clerks are paying attention to people’s bags when they leave. Like any addiction that’s in remission, my desire to shoplift bubbles up now and again, wending through my veins and trying to make me reach for things. I still have a space in my bag that would fit a belt or a tightly rolled skirt. But I think about the black minidress still hanging in my closet, and I keep walking. I may not have grown up into the sort of woman who wears that sexy dress, but I have grown up.